Discovering Haiti: Ile-a-Vâche, a magical destination off Haiti's south coast

Ile-à-Vâche: The ultimate discovery of a pristine island surrounded by emerald-like waters.

Ile-a-Vâche, a tiny 20 square mile piece of paradise in the Southwest of Haiti has been captivating the imagination of curious or daring travelers for years.

For history buffs, it may evoke the infamous British pirate Henri Morgan (1635-1688) who lost some vessels near the island in the midst of his illegal ventures. Or the intricate dealings of US President Lincoln and Haitian president Geffrard with investor Bernard Koch who attempted in 1862 to relocate some 5,000 emancipated blacks from the US on the island in an ill-fated project to grow and export fine Haitian cotton to US markets.

For adventurous minds, Ile-à-Vâche may mean the ultimate discovery of a pristine island surrounded by emerald-like waters disrupted by gentle bubbling waves that go on to crash against bands of fine white sand that circle the island. On the velvet green grass that covers most of the island, indolent cows munching on the grass, hyper active goats and other farm animals seek shelter against the sun, under tall coconut or mango trees that move their branches as if shuddering under the caress of the breeze.

With a population of about 16,000 people and an untouched ecosystem, Ile a Vâche — about 8 miles long and 2 miles wide — remains again one of the rare havens that (so far) does not accommodate cars or other four-wheel motorized vehicles. At a mere 30 minutes from the wharf of Les Cayes, the third largest city of Haiti, its character hasn’t changed over the years.

Its modern history goes back to the discovery of Haiti in 1492, when it was first known to be Spanish territory, until it was turned to the French after the Ryswick treaty of 1687 that ended a war between France and Spain. Over the two centuries, it was a place for both Spanish settlers and later the French settlers – the buccaneers – to safely raise their cattle, thus its name Isla Vaca (Spanish) or Ile-à-Vâche in French.

Since Haiti’s independence in 1804, Ile-à-Vâche residents have enjoyed a quiet and uneventful life. That is, until Bernard Koch convinced the Lincoln administration to let him bring some 500 emancipated blacks from the US – part of the attempt to “resolve” the slave “issue” by migrating blacks to other regions, such as the newly created Liberia. Aside from the negative fallout of complex state negotiations, the 500 emancipated blacks working for Koch did not assimilate well with the local population used to freedom and owner of their lands.

Whatever the motivation, a tour in Ile a Vâche offers a variety of options for the tourist in search of a good leisure time or of a stimulating social and community experience. The 7-mile-long island offers some great car-free paths that take the visitor toward the top of various soft hills from where one can enjoy some fascinating scenic views: Large swaths of green space similar to a natural golf courses, colorful little ajoupa covered with hays, indolent cows chewing on the wet grass, or residents heading to the fields or the market.

While the island has retained its natural beauty and ancient way of life, it features more modern lodging accommodations thanks to the resorts Abaka Bay and Port Morgan and the community-oriented Vacations Village / Village Vacancies which has roots in Massachusetts (home to its first investors). Across the three sites, visitors’ choices are rather rich: sailing, diving, swimming, boat tours, speed boat practice, inland guided tour, kayaking, volleyball, community soccer. They can also venture in the nearby Island of Love said to be exclusively for romantic tête-à-têtes, or to the Fishermen’s’ Island for some time fishing or interacting with local fishermen. One old fisherman demonstrates his savvy staying 10 minutes under the water and sometimes triumphantly bringing a fish in his bare hand!

While the resorts offer high-end accommodations and services, Village Vacances has been selling itself more as a community experience where guests may anticipate a “vacation with a mission” as Patrick Lucien, the Massachusetts-based driving force behind working with local partners on the project through Ile-à-Vâches Development Group (IVDG), puts it. Visitors or tourists staying with Village Vacances have taught English to local teachers, used their carpentry skills to build school benches for students, facilitated retreat for women and children, coordinated soccer tournaments with schools traveling from Miami, conducted storytelling sessions with youth and adults on the island, supported micro-credit initiatives for women, or helped facilitate workshops for young entrepreneurs, organized couple retreats.

Currently, key Massachusetts-based partners include Cape Code-based Mass Maritime Academy, Cambridge-based Elevate Destinations, Flying High for Haiti, the Ansara Family Foundation among others. An Art Center “KayAnne” opened in 2014 is named after Cambridge philanthropist and art promoter Anne Anninger who has steadily supported a local elementary school “L’Ecole du Village.” This August, Project Picture Day, based in New-York will be traveling to Haiti to photograph an estimated 450 students on Ile-à-Vaches as part of a cultural and educational journey.

Getting to Ile-à-Vaches
A trip to Ile-à-Vâche may include traveling first traveling from Boston to Port-au-Prince – a $350 to $500 trip depending of the season and the carrier. From Port-au-Prince to aux Cayes, (no longer available) – a two way trip. Other alternative to this price tag is to rent a good SUV – average of $60/day - to make the four hour drive from PAP to Les Cayes. Public transportation is also an option: air-conditioned minibuses are available at affordable $10 – one way. At the Les Cayes bus station, cabs take visitors to the wharf for less than $2.

Usually the visitor would make prior arrangement to be picked up by a small speedboat at the wharf, to cross the 7 miles in some thirty minutes before arriving to one of the three resorts. Price may range from $30-40 for a one way ride or at a lesser price for groups, but once on the island, the magic begins.

The plans by the Haitian government to make of Ile-à-Vâches an ultimate Caribbean resort have resulted in controversies due to fear of relocation by the locals. According to some accounts, their fears include an initial lack of communication with the locals and potential damage to the ecosystem, along with concerns about social and economic reengineering in the once quiet and bucolic island. There have been some first steps to address these issues, however regardless one’s position on such plans, Ile-à-Vâches is not about to change soon.

To experience it as it is now, the coming summer might be a visitor’s best bet to make a dip in the ocean that led to the demise of the infamous Captain Morgan, to experience a family “vacation with a mission” or just mingle with members of the friendly community of Ile-à-Vâches with a lobster in one hand and a coconut in the other.

The author has some interest in Ile-à-Vâche and is related to the founder of Ile-à-Vache Development Group. To travel to Ile-à-Vâches booking can happen on line for any of the three resorts: port-morgan.com; thevacationvillage.com; or abakabay.net.